El Cajon Lions continue tradition of delivering Christmas baskets to fill the holiday table for families in need this season

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For the 29th year, El Cajon Valley Host Lions Club members delivered Christmas baskets to feed needy families in East County during the holiday season. Early on Dec. 19, volunteers gathered in downtown El Cajon under guidance of committee Chairman Roy Collura, to assemble donated and purchased food items into large boxes, which volunteer drivers took directly to recipients’ homes. Also participating in the charitable efforts were 13 students from the El Cajon Valley High School Leos Club, junior associates working with the Lions.

For the 29th year, El Cajon Valley Host Lions Club members delivered Christmas baskets to feed needy families in East County during the holiday season. Early on Dec. 19, volunteers gathered in downtown El Cajon under guidance of committee Chairman Roy Collura, to assemble donated and purchased food items into large boxes, which volunteer drivers took directly to recipients’ homes. Also participating in the charitable efforts were 13 students from the El Cajon Valley High School Leos Club, junior associates working with the Lions.

Each basket contained a five pound ham, canned goods, milk, eggs, cheese, bread, cereal, noodles, rice, soup, cookies, apples, celery and other produce. Unlike past years, this year’s deliveries included frozen hams instead of canned, pancake mix and syrup, and a larger supply of fresh produce. Larger needy families of nine or more were set to receive bigger hams.

“We really stepped it up this year,” Collura said, describing the additional pantry goods.

The San Diego Food Bank sold groceries to the Lions at a deeply reduced price, which allowed the Lions to fill Christmas baskets for more families than the group otherwise could. During the Christmas 2014 event, the Lions delivered food-packed boxes to homes of 100 families, and another 15 boxes were picked up. This year, the list of needy families to receive Christmas baskets for a holiday feast, also with food for other meals, increased to 120.

Before current Lions Club President Ray Ridlon departed on a lengthy delivery route, he stopped to discuss the event.

“This is good today,” Ridlon began. “This year is more well-organized than before and we have more food to give too.” Ridlon disclosed that the Food Bank had provided 800 lbs of potatoes for the Lions Club boxes. “The Food Bank is a great organization, and we are happy to be partnering with the group for the third year.” Ridlon extended special thanks to the Leos as well, saying these youthful volunteers are “a tremendous help all year.”

Most of the Christmas basket deliveries were in El Cajon, although a few ranged as far afield as Lakeside, Spring Valley and Jamul. Needy families who received these boxes of holiday supplies were brought to the attention of the Lions by the Salvation Army and local schools in the Cajon Valley School District.

Stefano Balistreri, at 16, is in his fourth year of volunteering alongside his mother, Felina Balistreri, who is currently serving as the Lions’ second vice president. He was assisting with the Christmas baskets, and he explained that his voluntary charitable service with the Lions has further encouraged his participation in other East County volunteer service projects.

Don Anthony, an El Cajon Lions past president, has been there for the Christmas basket deliveries for 20 years. In recent years he has been helping with the organizational planning and logistics for the event. However, he has not forgotten the day’s significance for impoverished East County families.

“Going out to make deliveries gives you a great perspective,” he said. “You come to understand how appreciative the families are, and how much they need it.” He reminded, though, that the Lions emphasize charitable assistance and support programs for blindness and vision care. “We make sure that every child in East County receives and eye exam. And we provide glasses for any schoolchildren whose families cannot afford them. We understand that our volunteer work matters.”

Dick Rogers chairs the El Cajon Lions public relations committee. He echoes that sentiment and wants East County neighbors to understand that too. “One thing I’m trying to accomplish is to have people know about us and what we do. The money we raise goes right back into the community. So we want East County people to know when we come knocking on your door asking you to buy a ticket to our pancake breakfast, for example, this is what the money goes for.”

This Lions Club charitable holiday food program began in 1967, with 25 Christmas baskets delivered that first year. The annual tradition grew to serve from 35 to 45 low-income East County families, over following years, then swelling to over double that number during the recent economic downturn years. 

The El Cajon Valley Host Lions Club meets each Monday at noon in the Ronald Reagan Community Center, 195 E. Douglas Avenue. Membership is by invitation, to persons of good moral character who are willing to serve others. More information on the group and its members’ charitable activities can be found at www.ecvlionsclub.com.

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